Ahead of his reunion with former club Salford City, Mark Shelton spoke with Jacob Hackett to shed light on his time with the Ammies, meeting David Beckham, and how he is now enjoying life up north with Hartlepool United.
The midfielder spent ‘a really enjoyable’ three years at the Peninsula Stadium, overseeing two successive promotions in Greater Manchester as Salford progressed from the Vanarama National League North to Sky Bet League Two; a feat Shelton describes as a ‘big part’ of his career.
“It was really enjoyable. I look back now and think that it was a big part of my career,” said the 26-year-old.
“I signed when I was 20, the club was in the Conference North at the time and [there was] a lot of hype around the club with the owners. [David] Beckham joined in my second or maybe third year. It was just a club that was on the up and it obviously had a lot of media attention, it was always in the papers [regarding] how much money they had spent and what was going on there so it was exciting as a player to be playing for the club.”
“[There] were a lot of good opportunities to showcase your skills as there were a lot of eyes on it. It was a good place to be, a good place to play football.”
Owned by Project 92 Limited, a star-studded lineup of co-owners including David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phillip Neville and Paul Scholes, the expectations were bound to be mountain high.
“[The expectations] were massive,” explained Shelts.
“It was just the amount of pressure we were under to get promoted because of how much money was put into it by the owners. It was a sort of scheme where things were going one way very fast, and it was just ruthless in terms of if you do not play well, they will just get rid of you and get someone else in who they thought could do your job better.
“The amount of turnover of players we had was very high and it was tough, but it was good for a player to play under those conditions because you know that if you are not playing to your full potential or not trying in training then you are out the door. You would either get released, they would pay people up, they would get people in.
“We would be playing against other teams and if a player had done well then we would have them in training with us on a Monday. It was relentless.”
Shelton survived a number of squad overhauls which is no doubt proven by his two promotions with the club. The latter of the two came at the iconic Wembley Stadium; a ‘surreal’ moment for the midfielder.
“We went up from the Conference North in the first year that I signed, then we got promoted in the second year straight away. Back-to-back from the National League to League Two,” Shelton said.
“I unfortunately got injured. I broke my leg in the November, I was struggling for a long time and then the manager ended up putting me on the bench for the first time since my injury in the play-off final and brought me on for 30 minutes at Wembley so that was a good experience.
“[It was] surreal really. I was quite a bit younger at the time, I think I was only 22. So especially for me personally because I had been out for so long with injury. I got on with the manager to be fair, so I think he did that to look after me.
“Coming on at Wembley we were 3-0 up at the time, ironically enough against Dave Challinor’s Fylde team, so he signed me after that and I came on loan to Hartlepool from Salford the year after!
“It was incredible, especially with the owners there and speaking to Gary [Neville] and chilling with David Beckham; things like that do not really seem real at the time until you look back at photos. Just good memories.”
Beckham is a man that needs no introducing, so you could only imagine how it must have felt to be casually chatting with him. A ‘quite weird’ experience according to Shelton.
“The first day he came, we got told that something was going to be put out later regarding the club but we had no idea what it was. Then it came out on Sky Sports that Beckham had got involved with Salford, he had put his ten percent down or whatever it was and then we found out that he was coming to the game.
“I was injured at the time, on crutches I think, and he came to the game and into the changing room, said hello to everyone and shook everyone’s hand, gave a little speech and then watched the game.
“I happened to sit two seats down from him at the game because of being injured. It was Beckham, his son, someone else and then me. There were people there not even watching the game, just floods of people starting at Beckham and trying to get close to him.
“It was mental to think what affect one person can have on so many people. His football career and celebrity status just took over everything, I do not think I would want to be him really after seeing what I had that day!
“After the game at Wembley, we all went back to a bar in London. Gary [Neville] was there, Scholesy, Giggsy. He was brilliant to be fair, once all the lads had taken photos and that sort of aspect had died down he was sound, chilling, passing pints around to people. It was quite humbling really to see someone of that stature be so normal. It was quite refreshing and I can only say good things really about him and the rest of the owners.”
Towards the end of his time at Salford, Shelton had two loan spells; one with Woking and the other with Pools. The midfielder labelled his Hartlepool switch as a ‘lifeline’.
“It was sort of a lifeline for me really. I came back from injury and started that season in League Two with Salford. We did not do too well so I found myself edged out after three years there, which was expected because I had outlived a lot of people.
“I was still struggling with my leg a bit, but it was on the mend and I went out on loan to Woking for a month but that just did not work in terms of travelling and getting back up and down the country because they were part time so I came back after the month.
“We were into December and I was struggling to get a loan that fitted me and then my agent told me that ‘Hartlepool want to take you until the end of the season’, so that was brilliant for me.
“I knew how big the club was having played against them before, so I thought ‘yeah I will have a bit of that’. I came up and played about 14 games under Challinor and then the season got stopped due to Covid, so I was not here for too long really. I really enjoyed it though, and I signed a two-year contract after that in the summer. We were promoted and ever since then it has just been on the rise really, it has been good.”
Now a permanent member of Pools’ squad, Shelton admits that there is more hard work to be done this season.
“I am still optimistic,” said Shelts.
“It does not look great, performances and managers have been and gone, we have had a big turnover of players and arguably lost some of our better players from last season. We have brought in new people and it takes a while to get going, to get together, to get to know each other.
“The manager brings in new players and then the manager leaves, so then we get a new manager in who wants different things, different expectations, different standards. It has not been really easy as it kind of shows.
“It has not been ideal, but that is just football. Over the last two or three years, especially since I have been at the football club, it has just grown and grown in league status and in the feel factor around the club. Around the town everybody seems to have fallen back in love with the club and you get to a stage where it kind of stops for a bit.
“It is alright, that is just part of the journey in football, it is not always going to be singing and dancing. There are going to be times where you are going through rough patches and rough spells, rough months and rough games. It is just how you come through that, you have just got to be mentally strong and stay together and it can all change very fast.
“[We are] massively [motivated to turn things around]. No one likes losing games of football. No one enjoys when the fun factor goes and you are not winning games, it is not enjoyable. We want to win games of football and we feel like we are doing all we can to do that. Maybe we have been unlucky at times, maybe we have not been good enough, but that is not due to motivation or an effort factor. We just need to learn quicker, learn the game better and do our jobs individually. We can improve, obviously.”